Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jan 09, 2020
A Proposal for Three Enhanced Research Designs
Studying the risk factors of violent extremism 

The literature examining risk factors of radicalisation, terrorism and violent extremism has long been dominated by reviews as well as analyses of secondary data. In recent years, however, an increasing number of studies have employed primary data from interviews, surveys or experiments. As the interdisciplinary field of terrorism studies advances, three types of research design deserve more attention. Notably, in order to increase our understanding of risk factors and develop successful initiatives to prevent and counter violent extremism (PVE, CVE) future research should  systematically apply control group designs and sample (as well) from the general population, b) pursue cross-cultural comparisons and c) investigate causes or correlates of violent extremism across different ideologies.

Control group designs and general population samples

A common research method in terrorism studies is the retrospective life history assessment of individuals who have been convicted on terrorism-related charges or who committed an attack. This approach provides important insights into shared characteristics of selected individuals or the prevalence of particular experiences amongst those who were radicalised. At the same time, because the analyses do not include cases in which no commitment to violent extremism was evident but where apparent risk factors were nevertheless present, it is  not possible to identify factors that distinguish between those who (will) become radicalised and those who don’t – information that is crucial for CVE efforts.

For example, examining background characteristics of 119 lone-actor terrorists, it was shown that 31.9 percent had been diagnosed with mental illness or personality disorder. More than half of the individuals were described as socially isolated. These findings might encourage the conclusion that mental illness and social isolation are risk factors of violent extremism. However, the specific role of particular variables may be over- or underestimated, because the judgement does not take into account information about individuals who did not commit attacks, yet experienced mental health problems or isolation (indeed, a large proportion of people in many societies).

Research designs that include a so-called control group address this limitation; they compare potential risk factors between individuals who engaged in terrorism or held affinity with a violent extremist cause and ideally the general population. Dhumad, Candilis, Cleary, Dyer, and Khalifa for instance, conducted a study with individuals who were convicted of terrorism, individuals who were convicted of murder and a community sample without criminal convictions. Results demonstrated amongst others, that the three groups did not differ in terms of their history of childhood abuse or emotional neglect. Responses by convicted terrorists, however- highlighted a higher rate of childhood conduct disorder than the community sample, suggesting that this may be a relevant risk factor for terrorism.

Cross-cultural comparison studies

Initiatives to counter violent extremism are developed at the international as well as national and local level, by civil society and political actors. Doing so- it seems sensible that proven best practices are adopted across different communities and countries. However, it is noteworthy that risk factors of violent extremism that are identified in one cultural setting and CVE or PVE activities that are based on these insights, do not necessarily translate to other contexts. The cultural specificity of risk factors should be treated as an empirical question that remains to be examined systematically. Research in cross-cultural psychology offers a useful starting point and shows that attitudes, thoughts, and behaviour may vary between and are influenced by the cultures in which individuals are embedded. More precisely, attitudes towards violence have been found to differ significantly between men and women in India, Japan, Kuwait and the United States. Having said this, there is evidence to suggest that certain risk factors of violent extremism are applicable across cultures. Obaidi and colleagues showed that realistic and symbolic threat perceptions predicted support for violence for Muslims living in Europe and the Middle East as well as among non-Muslims in Europe and in the US.

Assessing risk factors across ideologies

Since the 9/11 terror attacks in the Unites States, terrorism studies have focused strongly on exploring radicalisation and violent extremism that follows a religious, jihadi-inspired ideology in support of groups such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Comparatively little attention has been paid to left-wing, right-wing, nationalist or single-issue terrorism. This means, on one hand that the relations and interactions between different ideological groups and movements — referred to as reactive co-radicalisation — also remain understudied. We know, for instance-very little about the dynamics by which attacks of right-wing terrorist groups shape the rhetoric and tactics of jihadi-inspired movements. An analysis of social media posts by anti-Muslim, far-right as well as pro-Al-Qaeda and pro-ISIS actors suggests that the groups, in fact learn from one another (e.g., with respect to communication strategies), interact rarely directly but react strongly to events initiated by the other side.

Importantly, risk factors of violent extremism may be shared by individuals who endorse different ideologies. Bouhana and colleagues, for instance- concluded that right-wing lone actors did not differ significantly from lone actors who had adopted other ideologies with respect to having had problems controlling anger before the attack and having been imprisoned. Much like the point has been made previously to assess cultural specificities, Chermak and Gruenewald's comprehensive study, in turn demonstrated distinct patterns of risk factors amongst supporters of different ideologies. Individuals affiliated with Al-Qaeda were more likely than left-wing terrorists to be described as having a mental illness; they also were more likely to have had military experience and attended college less frequently. Further research that assesses risk factors across ideologies is required as a crucial step towards developing holistic CVE and PVE initiatives that address all forms of violent extremism and violence.

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Sandy Schumann

Sandy Schumann

Dr. Sandy Schumann is a social and political psychologist: she is a Post-doctoral Research Associate at University College London Department of Security and Crime Science.

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